A conversation with kenny garrett
By Patrick Spurling
“I wanted to the hear the opera”
Not a comment one expects coming from a well-known Jazz artist, particularly when the reference is to traditional Chinese opera. By spending time in China “in the neighborhoods” alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett was of course laying the groundwork for his recent recording project ”Behind the Wall.” Talking about his projects, his past, and his position as an established voice in Jazz, Mr. Garrett took time for an interview this past April just before headlining with his quartet at the opening of the Jazzfestival Basel 2007. The night following our interview, the Kenny Garrett Quartet tour played one final time at a small Jazz venue in Zurich, Switzerland–the Widder Hotel. It was a true end-of-the-tour performance–intense and powerful.
What do you think about the differences between audiences in Europe and the US ?
We learn how to I look at others. When we come to a new place and try to present the music, sometimes people want you to show them how they should react. Sometimes people have no idea. If they rebel against it, or if they’re kind of into it, or if they don’t know --well you just show them, and it's OK. We’re just there to play some music.
Are they more receptive here in Europe?
In some ways. In one sense they have a deeper history. And you know in the States it can be a little difficult because we have more musicians, and younger people always coming up.
Kenny Garrett by Suzanne Cerny
When Ellington, Getz, and Armstrong spent time in Europe they would sometimes comment that European audiences were generally more appreciative.
In some ways, though I’ve had some audiences in the states that were very enthusiastic. When you are here, you realize they have a deeper history [but] they missed it [jazz]. It was not part of their culture. It’s like studying religion. If you’re brought up in that religion, people embrace it in a certain way. If I was brought up here it would not be the same. Europeans are embracing it more than people in The States that’s for sure.
You spent some time in China before your Behind the Wall project?
Actually I spent three weeks in China . Right before Behind the Wall. I went to China to study the language (laugh) and the culture. But as you know you can’t learn Chinese in three weeks. But it’s the learning that’s important. Basically I put myself in this culture. Someone says: ‘You study Chinese for a month and then you go to China. And we’re not going to put you in a Western hotel, you’re going to stay in the neighborhood and you’re on you’re own.’ It means a lot of stress. A lot of stress! But that was the best way to learn. In retrospect I would do it again. I got to a point that I said, well, I need to blend in. I can’t be afraid of this different culture. I can’t be frightened. I just have to try to learn, and learn about myself.
Ron Carter wanted to be a classical player but the Houston Symphony wasn’t ready for an integrated symphony. Did you run into racism in China?
In China it wasn’t really racism, but more or less multi-culturalism. For myself, it was trying to blend in with the Chinese people and not trying to come with an American mentality -- saying ‘this is the way it should be.’ There is always going to be a problem if you go down like that. If I just go there and try to understand the people it’s not going to be a problem. So I think it’s really your approach. But I didn’t run into that in China. Like I say I was in the neighborhood. The people liked me and they really wanted me to learn about the culture.
Did you have a chance to teach master classes?
No, I didn’t go there for any of that. I wanted to learn about China . I wanted to hear the opera. I wanted to hear the language. Eventually I did meet some musicians at a club in a hotel. They knew who I was and they were on the bandstand ready with cards. I didn’t think they had much jazz in China.
Art Blakey is known for having mentored young players and combining the young players with older players. Do you see your role now as mentoring the younger players?
Yeah, you know it’s interesting because I was reluctant in the beginning. I just kind of felt, well, I am still a student trying to learn myself. And as time moved on, then that role became my role. So I am taking the younger guys, mainly drummers; piano players are coming too. Everybody is starting to come.
As I look at the earlier part of your career, it seems that Freddie Hubbard was a strong influence in your life personally and musically.
Garrett: I played with Freddie off and on. Actually when I was still in Detroit , in high school, one of my mentors, Marcus Belgrave actually turned me on to Freddie. He told Freddie to look out for me. When I got to New York I had to look him up and he let me sit in, and that’s how I began -- basically because I was sitting with him and subbing in sessions.
What were your reactions as an 18 year old playing in the Ellington band?
I thought it was great because Cootie Williams came out of retirement and I got a chance to hang with him. I learned a lot about life and about music. But things aren’t like they used to be. Traveling with 18 musicians in a big bus -- on the road late at night -- it was just part of what it was. We never really had that.
How was it with Dannie Richmond in the Mingus Band?
Actually he was pretty interesting. I was 18 or 19 when I played with Danny. And at that time I was still trying to formulate my ideas. I was still coming from the roots, bebop. That band was pretty open which is the way they wanted to play and I wasn’t quite there yet. It was before I moved away from the [chord] changes. The way they were playing was pretty free. I have to say ... I rebelled a little bit. I was still trying to learn. And as I started to understand the concept, as I started to get the changes together, I started to play a little more free.
How about Woody Shaw? He and Freddie were such melodic players -- a strong influence in your playing?
Probably during that time; because I heard him [Freddie] every night. (Laugh) Sure. The same goes for Woody. I used to hear those lines every night, so at some point you’ve got to be influenced by them. I don’t know if I hear them the same way now because my music is changing.
What do you think about Wynton leaning more toward the traditional and Branford wanting to move forward? And where do you fit in?
(Laugh) I don’t really fit in anywhere. Wynton is doing what Wynton wants to do and Branford is doing what he wants. I have my way. The way I view life, [It’s] part of my personality. When I go to different countries I try to embrace the culture [and] try not to impose myself on the people. And I think the same thing about my music. I try to bring people together in the music. And so I don’t really get caught up in that. I just play the music I like. People like it, and that’s fine.
The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) is putting a priority on Jazz in recent years. How do you feel about fitting into the role of ambassador after your Beyond the Wallť recording project?
I kind of look at my music as world music. In some ways I think that every musician feels that [his music] is world music -- especially when we get off in different countries. We are all a bit ambassadors in our own way. If you’re the first to be there, that’s going to help.
What do you say to players who say ‘I want to move to New York and be a Jazz player’?
I tell them; sure, if they feel their talented enough and they are aspiring to play this music. But before they do they need to get their finances in order. And you’ve got to have some patience. Sometimes it takes a little longer. Sometimes it doesn’t happen right away. It’s patience and being willing to keep going.
Thanks to: The international Jazzfestival Basel 2007, sponsored by JAZZ BY OFF BEAT/JAZZ SCHULE BASEL, Allblues.com, the Widder Hotel, and to Kenny Garrett and the Kenny Garrett Quartet. Patrick Spurling